Philly basketball legend Tom Gola dies at 81

Philly basketball legend Tom Gola dies at 81

January 26, 2014, 10:45 pm
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Tom Gola grabbed an NCAA record 2,201 rebounds at La Salle and scored 2,461 points. (La Salle Athletics)

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"Tom put La Salle on the map, there's no question. If it wasn't for Tom Gola, La Salle wouldn't be as recognizable as they are. The reason La Salle is La Salle is Tom Gola."

- Former La Salle coach Speedy Morris

"On behalf of the entire Philadelphia 76ers organization, we are deeply saddened to learn of the unfortunate passing of La Salle basketball legend Tom Gola. Tom will always be fondly remembered for his dedication to this city and as an icon for his accomplishments both on and off the court.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Caroline, and the entire Gola family during this difficult time."

- Sixers CEO Scott O'Neil

Philadelphia lost a basketball legend Sunday as Tom Gola died at the age of 81.

Although he brought an NBA title to Philadelphia and also served the city as a politician, Gola will be forever known as a La Salle icon.

As a player, he led La Salle to the NIT title in 1952 and NCAA championship in 1954. As its coach, he is credited for leading what is often considered the best team in the history of the Big 5.

Nicknamed "Mr. All-Around" by his coach at La Salle, Hall of Famer Ken Loeffler, the 6-foot-6 Gola was a four-time All-America. He was named the College Player of the Year in 1955 and won an NBA championship with the Philadelphia Warriors a year later.

Gola was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.

"When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola, because he was like a saint," Wilt Chamberlain once said.

Gola's health began to deteriorate in 2003 when he fell and hit his head on a curb and spent days in a coma. He died at St. Joseph's Manor in Meadowbrook and is survived by his wife Caroline.

"Tom put La Salle on the map, there's no question," said Speedy Morris, who coached La Salle from 1986 to 2001. "If it wasn't for Tom Gola, La Salle wouldn't be as recognizable as they are.

"The reason La Salle is La Salle is Tom Gola."

A Philadelphia native, Gola attended La Salle High School, where he won a Philadelphia Catholic League Championship, and declined more than 50 college scholarship offers from other schools to play college ball for the university. He is one of only two college players to score more than 2,000 points and grab more than 2,000 rebounds (George Washington's Joe Holup is the other). Gola holds the NCAA record with 2,201 rebounds and left La Salle with 2,461 points, third in school history. The Explorers went 102-19 during his playing career.

"One of the greatest basketball players ever, certainly in this area," Morris said. "Just a phenomenal player.

"He was one of the few guys ever to play in an NIT Championship, NCAA Championship and NBA Championship. Basketball Hall of Fame, and rightfully so."

Gola averaged 20.9 points and 18.7 rebounds with La Salle. He was co-MVP of the 1952 NIT -- "When it was bigger than the NCAA tournament," Morris said -- and won Most Outstanding Player in the 1954 NCAA tournament. In his final season, the Explorers lost the NCAA championship game to San Francisco and Bill Russell.

Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once called Gola the "greatest all-around basketball player" ever.

Selected third overall by the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1955 draft, Gola spent 10 seasons in the NBA with the Warriors (Philadelphia and San Francisco) and the New York Knicks. The five-time all-star averaged 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.

With the Warriors -- who had offensive threats in Chamberlain, Paul Arizin and Neil Johnson -- he focused on defense and finding the open man.

"My job was to guard the opponents' best guard -- Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bill Sharman -- and be a playmaker," Gola once said.

After his professional career, Gola returned to La Salle and served as its head coach from 1968-70, compiling a 37-13 record. In his first season, the Explorers went 23-1 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation. That team is often considered the best in Big 5 history but was ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA violations committed before Gola's arrival.

In 1998, La Salle named its basketball arena in his honor.

"Tom Gola is known by all as a truly great player and coach but it was the man that was most cherished at La Salle," current head coach Dr. John Giannini said. "Every person connected with La Salle basketball for over a 60-year span has held his friendship and leadership as a blessing they could always count on. Our deepest sympathies go to Caroline. Our community will forever hold the Gola name as synonymous with greatness."

Gola is also a member of the Big 5 Basketball Hall of Fame, the Helms College Basketball Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame.

Gola also served Philadelphia as a politician. He represented Northeast Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, served as Philadelphia city controller as the running mate for then-District Attorney Arlen Specter, and in the early 1980s was a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Most importantly, Tom was a great man who, in true Lasallian spirit, did great things for the University and for others, " university president Michael J. McGinniss said. "La Salle University was very lucky to have him as part of our family.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Caroline and his family. We wish him eternal peace."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.